Copyright 2001 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.


Volume Seven

September 19, 2380--after midnight

Finally, a few minutes of peace and quiet--after what turned out to be a very long and trying day.

Before I could go in search of Ehm'murra I had to call Sah'larssh, to cancel our planned outing. Naturally, he asked why--and before I knew it I found myself telling him the whole long, strange story. He was "concerned" (Rae warned me that he's a bit of a busybody) and he more or less insisted that I take his sister Ehm'talak with me. I wasn't really in the mood for company, nor did I think I needed help--but I have been wanting to get to know her better, and so in the end I agreed. As it turns out, I'm glad I did--for several reasons.

Ehm'talak is without a doubt the most unusual Sah'aaran I've ever met--and that includes Ehm'murra, Ehm'rael and my beloved bond-mate. She was the victim of an extremely rare birth defect called Rrr'maal Syndrome, which can take a number of forms, but in her case caused her to be born entirely without limbs. She might have been condemned to an extremely difficult life--if not for her grandfather Sah'majha, who is perhaps the most renowned biological and nanotechnological engineer in the Alliance. Her arms, legs and tail are entirely prosthetic, and are constructed of a very strange metal, an atomically-strengthened isotope of copper first developed by (of all people) the Chrysaoans. Sah'majha knows that material's properties well, because his own artificial lower legs and hand are made from it. In their own way Ehm'talak's limbs are quite beautiful, a gleaming reddish-brown in color, and sculpted to mimic flesh and muscle--and I could spend hours just watching her walk. According to her, she was very clumsy as a child; but now her motions are fluid, graceful and assured, neither quite mechanical nor natural, but somewhere in between. Needless to say, she attracts attention everywhere she goes; even more, maybe, than I do. She's also very, very smart, and she's studying to follow in her grandfather's footsteps. And knowing that, as we settled into the shuttle car I asked her about the med-patch wrapper I'd found on my bathroom floor.

She frowned. "Taking RHT out of season? I wouldn't recommend it."

"Why not?"

"Well, first you have to understand how it works. During her fertile period, a female Sah'aaran's body pours out huge quantities of various hormones and pheromones. More so, of course, in unbonded females--as I imagine you've discovered."

"I have," I agreed. "Fortunately."

She smiled. "Maybe someday I will too. But at any rate, all this activity is regulated by a single 'master' hormone. RHT moderates the production of that substance, which in turn reduces the other hormones it controls."

I nodded. "Got it."

"The rest of the year, that master hormone is present only in very small amounts-- but even that tiny quantity is important, because it regulates a number of biological processes. Bone-building is one; another is vascular function--heartbeat, blood pressure, and so forth. A typical dose of RHT taken out of season would entirely eliminate the master hormone--and that wouldn't be good. I should say, though, that this is mostly guesswork on my part. As far as I know, there's never been a formal study."

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, "That being the case--why would anyone want to do it? What would they imagine the benefit to be?"

"I haven't a clue," she said. She paused. "Unless…"

"Unless what?"

"I don't know," she said with a smile. "Just a random thought. I'll let you know where it leads, all right?"

"All right."

For the moment, I had no choice but to leave it at that--and not long afterwards, we reached our destination: Sah'salaan University.

Why there? Because I remembered what Ehm'murra said about "finding a place to crash on campus." She implied that it was something she'd done often, and that she had favored places in which to set up camp, so to speak. Of course I couldn't know for certain that she'd be there--but if not, then I had no idea where else to look. My motive for searching had shifted, though. Before, I'd wanted to find her so I could beat an explanation for her strange behavior out of her. But Ehm'talak's words had really made me worry: I was genuinely afraid now that Ehm'murra might be in danger of ruining her health. I still wanted to know why, of course--but more than that, I wanted to stop her if I could. Maybe I had no right to do that; I don't know. I only knew I had to try.

Ehm'talak has been attending the University far longer than me--this is the beginning of her third year--and she knows the campus much better than I do. Over the next two hours she took me on a whirlwind tour of every place she thought Ehm'murra might have ensconced herself. It was still morning, and of course Ehm'murra wouldn't yet be looking for a place to sleep (or so we thought); but still, there were any number of places in which she might have gone to ground. We covered the library (which never closes); the Student Union (ditto); the gym and the women's locker room; and other, more out-of-the-way places, many of which I had no idea existed: tiny classrooms; communal offices; little conference lounges, with nothing more than a table, a few chairs and a computer terminal; and the galleries in the Art Building. We even checked balconies, stairwells and fire escapes. And everyplace we tried, we came up empty.

After a couple hours of this I was totally exhausted, and I called a brief halt. Ehm'talak was quite apologetic: she tends to forget that she can keep on walking long past the point where anyone else would give up and die. We decided to have lunch. Since it's the weekend, only a few of the many dining halls were open--not, unfortunately, including Ehm'murra's favorite in the Art Department. We settled for an autokitchen cafeteria on the top floor of the Student Union, and we had the place almost to ourselves.

By then I was growing extremely worried, and also a bit fatalistic. I was beginning to wonder too if I ought to have called Ehm'murra's aunt and uncle, rather than searching for her myself. I didn't know their visiphone code--but Uncle Sah'sell could have found it within five minutes, I felt certain. Maybe Ehm'murra simply went home after she left Sah'surraa's house, trusting that whatever trouble she was in had blown over by then. But the more I thought about it--and the terrible bruise on her cheek--the less I believed she would have done that. Not voluntarily, anyway. Someone hit her very hard--and I thought I knew who; or rather, I had an extremely short list of suspects.

The Student Union is on the east side of the campus, and the cafeteria overlooks a thick grove of Tatak, which follows one of the little artificial streams that flow through the University. And looking at those trees, I suddenly realized that we'd been looking in all the wrong places. I remembered a certain spot, a little nook nestled between several trees right at the water's edge; a place where Ehm'murra--so she'd told me--often went to be alone, to study or simply to think. She'd sworn me to secrecy as to its location--but this was an emergency. Ehm'talak and I gulped down the remainder of our steaks, and then we headed out across the campus, right to the very edge of the Sah'salaan greenbelt.

…And that's where we found her, exactly where I thought we would, with her back against a tree and her toes almost dangling in the little chattering stream. She seemed to be dozing as we came across her, with that ridiculous hat of hers tilted forward across her eyes. Her backpack lay beside her, and so too did a palm-reader and a stack of cards, a half-empty bottle of water, and the crumpled wrappers of several meat bars. Though the day was comfortably warm, she was wrapped tightly in a blanket--and seeing that, I suddenly became very afraid.

She heard us approach, and she stirred, freeing one hand from beneath her covering to push back her hat. And when I saw her face, I quickly graduated from "afraid" to "terrified." She was ghostly pale--I could see that most clearly in her ears and the tip of her nose--and her eyes didn't seem to want to focus. She gazed at me entirely without recognition for a few seconds; then she smiled. "Hey," she said, in Terran. "Shoulda known you'd track me down." Her eyes shifted. "Who's your shiny friend?"

I knelt down beside her and took her hand. "Ehm'murra, are you all right?"

She took a deep breath, and as she did I realized that she was shivering. Her hand felt icy in mine. "No," she said. "I don't think I am."

Ehm'talak crouched down and laid her metal hand on Ehm'murra's brow. "She needs medical attention," she announced, and Ehm'murra grinned.

"Can't argue with you there."

But unfortunately she could, and did. She wouldn't let us take her to Sah'salaan General--and she absolutely wouldn't let us take her home. So finally we did what I'd been dreading all along: we took her to my home--or rather, the house of Sah'surraa. We had a truly Dark-cursed time getting her to her feet and across campus to the shuttle station; but between the two of us, thanks mainly to Ehm'talak's great strength and endurance, we managed. While we were waiting for a car I broke out my commpak and called Sah'sell. Thank the Goddess, he agreed to help--and more importantly, he agreed not to bring his father into it unless it became absolutely necessary.

Sah'sell was waiting for us at the front gate, and just inside the vestibule we found Ehm'sanzz and Ehm'naala. Between us we took Ehm'murra to a guest bedroom--the one Ehm'rael used when the Abrams family visited two years ago. Ehm'murra wasn't much help by then; she seemed at best half-conscious. We got her out of her clothes and into bed--and about that time old Dr. Sah'vuul arrived. He's the Sah'surraa family physician, and has been for more than fifty years. He doesn't usually make house calls, I'm told--but money talks.

The doctor kicked the rest of us out the bedroom while he worked, except for Ehm'sanzz. Ehm'naala went to distract Sah'surraa--though I doubt he'll stay distracted long--and Ehm'talak decided to go home, knowing that her brother would be dying for a full report. I saw her to the door, and I thanked her profusely for her help. She nuzzled under my chin--a sign of friendship I wouldn't have thought I'd earned quite yet--and said, "Don't mention it." She smiled. "And unless I miss my guess, I'll be seeing you two very soon--or my grandfather will."

I started to ask her what she meant; but she was too fast on those tireless legs of hers. I returned to the vigil in the hall, and it wasn't long before the door opened and Dr. Sah'vuul and Ehm'sanzz emerged. The doctor looked disgruntled--but I'm told he often does.

"It's fortunate you found her when you did, young lady," he told me. "She had an almost toxic level of RHT in her system."

"Will she be all right?" I asked anxiously.

"Yes, she will," he assured me. "I've given her something to balance her hormones. She should be fine in a day or two--provided she takes no more RHT until her next fertile period."

"Did she happen to tell you how she'd come to take so much?" Sah'sell asked, and the doctor shook his head.

"Not really," he said. "I asked, of course--but she would only say that there had been an 'accident.'" He paused. "I don't suppose I need to mention that deliberate misuse of prescription medications is a criminal offense…"

"May I see her?" I asked quickly--before he could pursue that line of thought.

"You may. She's conscious, but she may still be a bit groggy."

I ducked into the room then, letting the doctor and Sah'sell argue about payment and such. I found Ehm'murra lying on her back in the middle of the big, low bed, the covers pulled up to her neck and her bare arms lying across her abdomen. Her mane, hanging loose, spilled over her shoulders--and once again, that somehow made her look much younger than she really is. Her ears and nose were a little less pale, and that relieved me greatly. As I entered, she looked up at me and smiled weakly. "Hiya," she said.

I sat down on the edge of the bed, and reached across to grasp her hand. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I've been run over by a hover-skim," she said with a chuckle. "But I'll live."

I wanted to ask her what had happened--but I had a feeling she would evade a direct question. I'd have to try an oblique approach. And so I said, softly, "I've been thinking about something you said last night." I paused. "You don't have a brother, do you?"

As I'd intended, the question caught her off-guard--and then some. She quickly pulled her hand away from mine, and for a second I was half-afraid she'd claw me. But then she sighed. "No," she said flatly. "I don't. Never have. He died the day we were born."

"What of?"

"I don't know exactly," she said. "My parents don't like to talk about it. They never even named him…"

I nodded. That's traditional: the Naming Ceremony takes place about a week after birth, and a kit who doesn't make it that long is considered never to have existed at all. Harsh, perhaps--but it's our way, and has been for many thousands of years.

"…But I know he had a huge hole in his heart," she went on, her voice rigidly under control, "and his lungs filled with blood almost as soon as he took his first breath. The doctors tried their best to save him, but…"

"I'm truly sorry."

"Yeah," she replied softly. "So am I." She cleared her throat. "But anyway, now you know: I'm an--" she used the Sah'aaran word-- "Incomplete."

I shrugged. "So was the Goddess Herself, if you believe in the Sah'chraa Heresy."

"That's also why we've always lived on Terra," she went on. "My folks could have returned to Sah'aar years ago--but on Earth there's no particular stigma attached to being an only child."

That explained a lot too, and my heart really went out to her. Like most Sah'aarans, I literally can't imagine what it would be like not to have a sibling. And unfortunately, she's right about the stigma, which far predates our civilization. Had she grown up on Sah'aar as an Incomplete, she would have been teased mercilessly--or pitied, which can often be worse. She'd also have been closely watched by school psychologists and suchlike, for signs of instability.

I reached across and gently brushed her cheek. The anti-inflammatory patch had taken down most of the swelling, but there was still some discoloration, clearly visible through her fur. "Who hit you?" I asked softly.

She sighed again. "My uncle," she said. "He found out what I was doing--and needless to say, he didn't approve."

"Taking RHT, you mean."

"Yeah," she said. "That." She touched the bruise, and winced. "I had to get out of the house after that," she went on. "I couldn't take it any more." She chuckled. "I imagine he'd be all repentant and ready to apologize by now…"

"I should hope so," I said. I paused. "And that leaves me with only one question."

She grinned. "Let me guess: why am I taking RHT?"

"Exactly. I can't believe you were trying to kill yourself…"

"There'd be a lot easier ways to go about that, wouldn't there?" she countered. She turned away then, and for a long moment she lay silent, gazing out the window at Ehm'naala's flower garden. Finally she said, "I'm taking it--was taking it--because I don't want to bond."

I reeled back. "Pardon me?"

"I said," she snapped, "I don't want to bond. That's why my parents sent me here; I could just as well have gone to any Goddess-cursed college on Terra. They want me to find a mate. I was fortunate last year--but it's only a matter of time before my luck runs out."

"I don't understand," I said. "Why in the world would anyone want to avoid bonding?" But before she could reply, the answer--or the most probable answer, anyway, considering her background--dropped into my mind with a thud. "…oh."

She grinned. "You are a quick study." She sobered then. "His name is Ethan," she went on. "We've known each other forever--went all through school together." She shrugged. "And--what can I say? I love him, and he loves me."

"I see," I said thoughtfully. "And your parents don't approve, I take it?"

"Neither his nor mine," she agreed bitterly. "But compared to my aunt and uncle, they're wildly enthusiastic. Those two are really fanatical on the subject. If they could, they'd have your bond-mate's parents arrested for public immorality, or some damned thing. And me too."

I took her hand again, and she didn't prevent me. "I understand," I said. "And I'm hardly in a position to judge you. From what I've seen, Tom's parents are very happy together--always have been. If you're in love with a human, believe me, I won't think any the less of you."

She smiled sardonically. "Well, that's one vote in my favor, anyway."

"But," I went on, "you can't keep drugging yourself. I have no idea whether what you were trying to do would even work…"

"Neither do I. I couldn't think of anything better, though."

"…but I do know it could do serious damage to your health. You know that too--I hope."

"I do now. Goddess help me if I don't." She spread her hands helplessly. "But what else can I do? I will not bond with a Sah'aaran--I can't do that to Ethan."

Abruptly then I recalled Ehm'talak's words as she departed--and with a start, I suddenly understood exactly what they meant. Obviously she'd figured out what was going on--either that, or she's a very good guesser. "There may," I said, "be another alternative."

…So here it is, well past midnight, and I'm about to drop from exhaustion. Far from being relaxing, this weekend looks to be the most stressful since I arrived on Sah'aar. Ehm'murra is asleep now--I checked on her a little while ago--and she's promised not to try to slip out. Tomorrow I'll have to see if I can arrange a meeting between her and Sah'majha. I'm not sure he'll be able to help her--but it's worth a try.

I guess I'd better get some sleep too. Sometime tomorrow, I very much suspect, I'll be called on the carpet by Sah'surraa, and "invited" to account for my actions today. And I'll have no choice but to go; he is, after all, my host, and I've skirted very close to abusing his hospitality. Believe me, I can hardly wait.

To Be Continued...

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